The call came in half an hour before closing: “. . . man down in The Wave . . .” was all the woman said before her phone cut off. I was surprised she’d gotten out even that much. The backcountry of our state park was so remote, reception was wind dependent. Since I couldn’t call her back, it meant Ranger Rick was off to a rescue.
Seniority should have let me delegate this snipe hunt, but my colleagues were both busy. Stan was at the reception desk explaining to a Slavic couple, for whom English wasn’t yet a second language, that the campgrounds were full and that they’d need to drive the hour into town and pay for a cheap motel, rather than stopping at the roadside and popping up a dome next to the signs with a red-slashed tent. Meanwhile, Lauren was already twenty miles out, sweeping the slot canyon of stragglers. Like khakied security guards, we had to lock down the place at sunset; except, instead of patrolling 2,000 square feet, we had as many miles. So it fell on me to help the poor tourist who’d probably tired hiking two miles to a lookout. Such mishaps were everyday, but I grabbed a first aid pack just in case.
On the drive out—five miles along a dirt road reduced to rattling washboard by too many speeding SUVs—I noted the usual array of infractions: a spit-shined pickup resting in a dry wash where even a slight rain would carry it away in a flash flood; kids crawling over Petroglyph Rock, palming the carvings left a thousand years; tourists staking out Sunset Pointe to mimic our brochure’s cover shot of rocks so red they glowed like embers (unconscious that the photo was taken by a professional using a half dozen filters). For most of them, our little state park was a warmup to Zion and Grand Canyon, but for me it was a cool down on the trudge to retirement.
There were only three vehicles parked at the trailhead to the Wave, so I prayed for a quick rescue, shouldered my pack, and hiked in. I tried to hurry so I could get home for “Jeopardy” and leftover rabbit stew, but little things distracted me: the prickly pear was in bloom, with bright pink squash blossoms popping from its spiny ears; then a Chuckwalla lizard ran past, its ringed tail twitching.
The trail led downhill into an arroyo of red rock and sandstone. Half a dozen footprints headed into the black crust of the mesa, which takes centuries to repair itself; no way to tell if they were my caller’s. Close by, a teenaged girl posed in a sandstone tube as her beau directed her to slide farther into the nook where rattlesnakes liked to slumber.
“You two see an injured hiker?” I said.
They paused long enough for the model to shake her head and simper after she dislodged a cascade of debris.
Past there, the path traversed slick rock and was marked by cairns. The piles were spaced every twenty-five yards to make it obvious, but people still got lost, meaning my rescue could be anywhere. Since my caller said The Wave, I followed the trail for its last quarter mile. A geologic quirk of Navajo sandstone pushed up into a rip curl, it was a favorite of photographers for its sea swirls of red and white iron ore. After cresting the final rise, I saw a trio of shutterbugs swimming in it.
“Anybody hurt?” I called.
“Down here,” a woman yelled.
Ten feet below the breaker, a man lay on his side, one leg twisted improbably under him, a camera hanging from his neck like a dog tag. He was a barrel cactus, round and squat, with quills for hair and skin burnt to crust. Kneeling beside him was a pretty city gal in flip flops and a gauzy dress, the hem stained by red dust. Under a straw hat, her skin was as pale as his was red, and her hair as soft as his was coarse.
“What happened?” I said.
“I got bushwhacked,” the man said. “Somebody snuck up and pushed me over the ledge when my back was turned.”
While I checked his injuries, the woman stroked his hand absently, her wedding ring glinting in the fading light. Add a little makeup and I would have thought she was his daughter, but the sun had cracked her lips, and her squint brought out worry lines. Like my ex-wife, the desert was hard on her.
I couldn’t find any fractures or blood on my victim, but his knee wouldn’t work the same for a few weeks, and he wasn’t walking out on his own. Since I didn’t feel like porting a man my size alone, I squawked my radio until both Stan and Lauren picked up.
“I could use a second,” I said.
“I’ve got an abandoned car here,” Lauren said.
“Yeah, me too,” Stan added.
In other words: “This one’s yours.”
Above, the shutterbugs were clicking away obliviously. Even after I climbed back up the ledge, they were too engrossed in their viewfinders to notice me. I had to summon them with a casual “folks.”
“That man’s going to need an evac,” I said. “Who can help carry?”
The three kept a conspiratorial silence until a babe in man’s clothing spoke up. He’d been dressed by an overprotective mom, prepped for mountaineering with new leather boots, convertible pants, and glacier glasses.
“Can’t we finish our pi-tures?” he said, lisping the word without the c.
Instead of answering, I waited for the others to speak, but they were all good army grunts, volunteering for nothing.
“First tell me what happened.”
I turned to a second man outfitted in a safari vest holding a dozen lenses. His tan ran many layers deep, and his hair was bleached toward white, though I couldn’t separate sun damage from age. Based on his getup and gear, he had to be a pro, although he lacked the $10 permit we required of profit seekers.
“He slipped,” said safari vest.
“Hogwash,” called the victim from below.
Last, I looked to a stringy old guy with hair cut by sheep shears, tissue paper skin, and an 8x10 box camera on a tripod. I’d seen him before: a local with an off-the-grid cabin. Rumors were he’d moved to the backcountry after a bad divorce. He was always alone but seemed content with his camera for company, an Ansel Adams wannabe.
“He slipped,” Ansel said.
“Liar!” said my victim.
After a silence that only the desert could sustain, the woman said, “You could have slipped.”
“Somebody bull rushed me,” her husband said.
“Your head was in the camera.”
“I know what I felt.”
With ten minutes left till quitting time, I sensed my night at home disappearing with the daylight, replaced by paperwork, ambulances, and cross examinations.
“Till I know what happened, no one snaps another frame,” I said.
The shutterbugs eyed the horizon; then something clicked like a gun cocking, but it was just safari vest detaching a lens.
“We’re losing light,” he said.
“Your time is my time,” I said.
He glanced irritably to the West, but it led only to miles of canyons and mesas.
“Officer, you see that?”
He pointed to the mountains, where a full moon lay like cream cheese on a red plate.
“In five minutes, it’ll be the perfect backdrop. That kind of shot only comes once a month.”
“Every 29 days,” I corrected. “And it’s Ranger.”
He stepped forward aggressively, but his doughy body couldn’t support the threat.
“I drove a hundred miles for this,” he said, “and you’re going to ruin it because some oaf twisted his ankle.”
“You can come back.”
“And camp out, and hike in, and hope for clear skies?”
“Not a frame till somebody talks.”
Safari vest spread the legs of his tripod and set his own equally firm behind it.
“Why punish us?” he said. “We just want some snapshots. Isn’t that what you guys always preach: leave only footprints, take only photos?”
While he stared me down, mountain boy dropped his hands to his waist and twisted in place, clutching his camera close to his body. He thought I wouldn’t notice him fingering the trigger, but I learned that trick from my children playing on their cell phones.
“Don’t think I won’t confiscate your gear,” I said.
The kid stopped spinning but eyed me resentfully, proof that, like my adult daughter, he still lived with his mother and saw her as an oppressor. Meanwhile, safari vest mounted a dented camera body onto his platform and turned it my way.
“You heard the woman,” he said. “He slipped.”
I looked to the ledge, where the orange blossom of a desert mallow was flattened just above my victim. Then I imagined a conversation with my director the next day: me trying to explain why I detained three people for the same crime while he thought of more remote parks to banish me.
“Let me see your cameras,” I said.
“You’ll give them back?” mountain boy said.
“After I see them.”
Meekly, he passed me an SLR with a lens bigger than a telescope. It held dozens of shots of The Wave. In almost every one the victim was visible, crouching to show his butt crack, standing with elbows akimbo, laying atop the rock like it was a chaise lounge. Safari vests were similar, a documentary of a stranger’s movements. With the 8x10, I couldn’t view the unprocessed film, but I’d bet it was the same.
“None of you caught the accident?” I said.
They all shook their heads like wary coyotes.
I jumped below again to view the victim’s shots, but his were all landscapes, while the woman’s point and shoot showed the desert mallow framed by red rock. Hers were the only ones of the bunch that captured the fragile beauty of the place.
“Since we can’t agree, we’ll walk back together,” I said. “Who’s my porter?”
“I’m not riding one of those mules,” the victim said.
His accent had that Vegas twang of cowboy fakery. For the first time I noted his getup: hand-tooled boots, an authentic Stetson, and designer jeans. It was an urbanite’s version of Western chic, unscuffed or dirtied except for the places he’d landed. I’d bet he fancied himself an outlaw because he made money selling overpriced real estate.
“You rather wait till morning?” I said.
“I can pay for my own rescue.”
“You can’t bribe who’s not here.”
“Then I’ll call for an evac.”
He pulled his cell phone like a gun and tried to load in a new number, but the call had no barrel to guide it. As he dialed again, futilely, I looked up to the three shutterbugs, who stood at the rock edge as static as their tripods.
“Can’t we take one more pi-ture first?” said mountain boy. He held up his fat lens to prove its harmlessness.
I gave him my most stern parental glare and shook my head.
So we were stuck in a gunslinger’s stalemate until the woman said “I’ll help.”
We bookended the victim and hoisted him between us, our arms touching behind his back. Her skin felt smooth and warm.
The others followed like mules. Ansel was most cooperative, setting a leisurely pace, his box camera thrown over one shoulder. As a local, he’d get plenty of other exposures. Safari vest huffed and dragged his feet in the dust, creating a cloud around him, while mountain boy straggled behind. I kept them all on a tether by warning that I’d already recorded their license numbers—a bluff, but an effective one.
The woman’s flip flops, combined with her husband’s density, made it slow going. Halfway up, she was gasping and sagging, so we rested by a clump of barrel cacti. While the victim lay against a boulder rubbed smooth by millennia of floods and winds, the others pouted separately, staring toward the horizon, now in twilight.
“Don’t act so colicky,” the victim said.
The others stared the other way, silent.
“Y’all got no cause to be bitter.”
“You wouldn’t step aside,” said safari vest.
“Why should I?”
“It’s professional courtesy,” said Ansel. “You take turns.”
“That why you ambushed me?”
Instead of answering, safari vest kicked rocks down the slope, Ansel stared dreamily at the first stars, and mountain boy obsessed over a yucca. The woman sat apart, a desert bloom among clodhoppers. When a wind gust ruffled her thin dress, she shivered.
“Let’s get moving,” I said. “It’ll be dark soon.”
“What are you going to do with us?” safari vest asked.
“Just walk,” I said.
Midway up, mountain boy hooked his pants on a Beavertail cactus. He tried to shake it off, but only got more ensnared until his hand-hemmed cuffs tore, so safari vest stepped on the plant’s pointy ear, crushing it under his heel. The boy looked relieved until he noticed my stare.
“Oh, crud, I didn’t mean . . .”
“Just walk,” I said.
Another five minutes of plodding brought us to the parking lot, which held the same three cars as before. I set the victim on a bumper, then turned and saw the whole valley glowing like a photo negative. As a distraction, I said “Guys, there’s your shot.”
They started firing like infantry, standing and kneeling, too impatient to set up their tripods. Even my victim hopped up for a memento. Meanwhile, I slid over to the woman, who drifted the other way alone.
“You want to tell me what really happened to your husband?” I said.
“He’s not my husband.”
I glanced at her wedding band, which up close was scratched and scarred.
She explained “It was my grandma’s. Plus, it keeps away the jerks.”
“Or discourages everyone but.”
“You mean my boyfriend? He’s got his good side, too. I can’t think what it is right now, but I’m sure it’s there.”
“You could do better.”
“Men always say that, but it’s just a come on.”
Since I couldn’t think how to answer that without confirming it, I returned to the original question.
“So what happened?” I said.
She nodded and pushed around a rock with her flip flop.
“With your help?” I said.
When she lifted her face, the skin was drawn tight over her delicate cheekbones.
“You think I pushed him?”
“Your photos,” I said. “That desert mallow was right next to the ledge.”
She held me with a stare and wouldn’t let go.
“I didn’t mean to,” she said. “We just bumped.”
Her eyes pooled with so much sincerity that I believed her, but I doubted he would. Such men are too prone to believe ill of others to ever see their own faults. That wasn’t my worry, though. Her confession was all I needed to file away this case for good.
Once their photo cravings were sated, the three shutterbugs began packing their camera gear into their cars. Urgently, the victim hopped toward us.
“What are you fitting to do about me?” he said.
“You want me to call an ambulance?”
“I want you to arrest them!”
He pointed to his twisted knee as though there were no more proof needed.
“No,” I said. “It wasn’t them.”
I looked toward his better half, hoping she’d clarify, but instead she regressed to silence. The victim eyed us like he’d discovered an infidelity, then his face turned even more red.
“Take that back,” he said, “or by week’s end you’ll be picking up trash here.”
After a pregnant pause, the woman said “Don’t.”
“Just . . . don’t.”
Now all five of us waited for her to explain.
“It was an accident,” she said.
He hopped a half step closer to pin her against a boulder, but she easily sidestepped him.
“You pushed me?”
“Not pushed, bumped.”
“You bumped me?”
He gimped in a circle, hands on his head in a migraine dance.
“You’re such a . . . klutz!”
Her face finally gained some color, and the shutters of her eyes closed to pinpoints.
“You’re the klutz!” she said. “You stepped right on my flower, like I wasn’t even there.”
“I was taking pictures.”
“So was I until you ruined them! You always do this: drag me to these places then act like I don’t exist. Why don’t you ever focus on me?”
While the rest of us did just that—imprinting her furious beauty on the plates of our memory—he moved toward the road like he planned to hobble home alone.
“Faithless as a nude model,” he muttered.
The mystery solved, the shutterbugs climbed into their cars and drove off, leaving a haze of red dust. As my victim waited for some better rescuer to show, the woman stared at me with dry, unwavering eyes, but that could have just been a byproduct of the desert.
“Where’s your car?” I said.
She pointed toward the dry wash where I’d seen the immaculate marooned truck, so I opened my passenger door; after a backward glance at her boyfriend, she climbed in. I figured they could use some time apart and radioed Lauren to pick him up.
During the drive she was quiet, watching the moon rise over the red landscape like a pendulum and letting the wind blow through her hair, bringing with it the scent of yellow desert marigold mixed with dust. Once the cold forced her to roll up the window, she turned and said, “It must be wonderful living out here.”
“It’s solitary,” I said.
We didn’t speak the rest of the way, but when we reached her pickup, she asked if I wanted to take her into town.